Here in Berlin, Black, gold, and red – the country’s colors – are out in force. Small flags stick up from windowsill gardens, and giant ones four-stories-long roll brusquely along building facades. Others are rigged to bicycles, clamped down by car trunks, clipped onto windows, and pegged to antennas. Black, gold, and red body and fashion accessories, from women’s handbags to rubber bracelets, are making appearances on wrists, fingers, and necks. You can even get black, gold, and red face paint in a single stick, making application as neat and easy as a single flick across the cheek.
This is the World Cup, after all, a global event many times grander than the Olympics. Pride and ego are on the line. Emotions rise and fall with the movement of the ball. Displays of national fidelity are commonplace.
But Germany is a different case.
Patriotic exuberance can’t help but be accompanied by palpable unease. Embedded in German DNA is a deep knowledge of a dreadful history. Like original sin, Germans are born with a sense of wrongdoing.
At least it can feel that way.
Public education never misses an opportunity to hammer into malleable children, perhaps to a point of diminishing returns, the destruction their grandparents were party to. In matters involving Jews or Israel, Germany treads lightly. At large public gatherings, surely someone in the crowd will interject not-so-subtle allusions to Third Reich pageantry. It may be merely jest, but there is truth in jest.
No one seriously suggests football passion is the top of a slippery slope, but the grotesque wound National Socialism left on the German epidermis is enough to make many Germans repel, or at most sheepishly approach, national symbols.
At the extreme, German media have reported left-wing agitators vandalizing properties of immigrants who visibly support their adopted homeland (a twisted rationale for making an anti-Nazi statement). It’s more common, though, for mainstream Germans to root for World Cup teams other than Germany – it’s less complicated.
And yet, amid this inward mistrust, which feeds on self-characterized pessimism, the World Cup is creating space for a pinch of normalcy to settle in. It’s about time. To be sure, it raises worried eyebrows, both inside the country and out, but to deny Germans the pleasure of national pride is to intimate that 65 years and three-plus generations means nothing.
It is important to recognize that painful but transformative period in Germany’s postwar history, when the antiestablishment movements of the 1960s swept through German youth, sparking a German awakening. Germans realized what their parents, professors, and politicians had done, and they were outraged.
Demand for change manifested itself most violently as the Red Army Faction, a guerrilla group that staged hundreds of “anti-Fascist” attacks.
With the last of the witnesses to Nazi terror dying out, Germany maintains responsibility for its past, even as other countries mistakenly attempt to redefine theirs.
Consider this: Most countries have skeletons, but Germany is among the few that’s taken its out of the closet. Austria was no victim, and Japan perpetrated the Nanking Massacre; today’s bloodletting in Congo can be traced to the horrors of King Leopold’s Belgium; and the United States codified black slaves as three-fifths of a person, but these crimes hardly get more than a couple of pages in a history textbook. In addressing its dark past, rather than redefining it, Germany has set an example others should follow.
Of course racism isn’t over anywhere. About the same time last winter that Berlin’s fledgling Jewish community was hosting a warmly received Hanukkah menorah lighting in front of the Brandenburg Gate, the same event in my hometown was marred by the appearance of three masked men with Nazi flags. Neo-Nazi groups leech off bad economic times and legitimate frustrations.
But when they demonstrate, far larger groups mass to counter them. This May, 500 neo-Nazis had to scuttle a march through Berlin when as many as 10,000 Berliners showed up to block their way.
This is new territory for Germany. It wasn’t until 2006, when they hosted the last World Cup, that Germans began to break with rueful tradition and show more outward pride. Now Germans do as others do, with celebrations that are vibrant, public, and unashamed.
For the rest of the world, this should be a welcome turning point. It’s what the war’s victors wanted: a prosperous continent at peace with itself, and a new Germany integrated into the world order, mature enough to distinguish between political power and national spirit. If Germany is to be faulted for normalizing, we have only ourselves to blame.
As for its past, Germany will never forget because it can’t forget. Nagging reminders are everywhere. Like in Berlin’s Europa Center, home to both carnival-like victory rallies and the Memory Church – bombed during the war and left as is, its steeple caved in. With the sun just right following Germany’s quarter-final win, Germans looking toward the World Cup trophy couldn’t escape the church’s – their history’s – long shadow.
Bill Glucroft lives in Berlin. He is an English teacher, and a business English consultant. He blogs at mediabard.org.